Comic Jim Gaffigan On Stand-Up, Faith And Raising Five Kids
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
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JIM GAFFIGAN: I do want everyone to feel comfortable. That's why I'd like to talk to you about Jesus.
GAFFIGAN: He better not. It doesn't matter if you're religious or not. Does anything make you feel more uncomfortable than some stranger going, I'd like to talk to you about Jesus?
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I'd like you not to.
You could say that to the pope. I want to talk to you about Jesus. He'd be like, easy, freak.
GAFFIGAN: I keep work at work.
GAFFIGAN: You have to admit, that was a good impression of the pope.
BIANCULLI: That's comic Jim Gaffigan recorded in 2005. Last September when Terry interviewed Jim Gaffigan, he was days away from appearing as an opening act for the pope during the pope's visit to Philadelphia. Gaffigan performed as part of the concluding public event following the papal parade, and even though he's a comedian, he was not out of place in the festivities. He's made his Catholicism a central part of his comedy. In his stand-up act and in his TV series "The Jim Gaffigan Show," which is now in its second season on TV Land. He plays a stand-up comic named Jim Gaffigan, who, like the real Jim Gaffigan, is married, has five children and is Catholic. Here's a clip from the first season. Gaffigan had tried to keep a pretty low profile about his religious beliefs until The Huffington Post prominently features him in a story headlined "Entertainers Of Faith." His always sarcastic friend, played by Michael Ian Black, discovers the article while visiting Gaffigan and his wife.
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IAN MICHAEL BLACK: (As Daniel) What is this picture of you holding a Bible the size of a child's coffin doing on The Huffington Post?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Let me see this.
BLACK: (As Daniel) Congratulations, you made the front page, right next to a story about Miley Cyrus' tongue.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan, reading) "Entertainers Of Faith," funnyman Jim Gaffigan isn't ashamed of his Catholicism. He's seen here leaving a New York comedy club with his Bible in hand.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) What are they talking about?
BLACK: (As Daniel) I know. They lost me at funnyman.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, no, I've been outed as a Christian.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) What is wrong with that?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Well, I don't want people to think I believe in God.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) But you do believe in God.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Yeah, but that's my private business. Besides, the perception is that people that believe in God are stupid.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) Oh, I don't think that's true.
BLACK: (As Daniel) Your signature bit is you singing "Hot Pockets," and suddenly you're worried about people thinking you're stupid?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) No, really, this is serious business. I don't want to get involved in the culture war. Religion's iffy. Once you identify yourself as believing something, you open yourself to ridicule.
BLACK: (As Daniel) You're being completely paranoid. Just because you believe in a Jesus that looks like Chris Hemsworth doesn't mean people are going to think they're better than you. They got plenty of other reasons for that.
WILLIAMS: (As Jeannie Gaffigan) Come on, Daniel. You don't believe in some sort of higher power?
BLACK: (As Daniel) You think God made man in his image?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) I'm a target now.
BLACK: (As Daniel) I know, a mighty big one, too.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) That's a scene from "The Jim Gaffigan Show." Jim Gaffigan, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I should mention, further into that scene you get calls from the White House inviting you to the annual Prayer Breakfast. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, wants to debate you. Joe Austin wants to take you to dinner. (Laughter) I'm sure you wrote all of that before you got the call asking you to perform with the pope in the audience for the World Meeting of Families....
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, it's...
GROSS: ...During the pope's visit Philadelphia. So in the clip that we heard, the Jim Gaffigan that you play on your TV show is very uncomfortable with being outed as a Catholic. And he's afraid that it's going to hurt his comic identity and that people will project things on him, that it's going to lead to trouble. Were you uncomfortable with audience or the press finding out that you were a practicing Catholic?
GAFFIGAN: Yeah. I mean, well, I - you know, my wife and I, we work together. And we wrote this book, "Dad Is Fat." And in the book, you know, I was encouraged constantly by my editor to be more personal and talk about more personal experiences. So we wrote about having five kids and bringing them to church. A journalist at The Washington Post wrote this article where the headline was "The New Catholic Evangelism Of Jim Gaffigan." And it was a bit terrifying. I spent most of my adult life essentially agnostic or an atheist. And I am somebody who - my path to my faith is very kind of individual, and I don't want to be lumped into the category of, you know, those Westboro Baptists. Like, my faith is very personal. It's not something that I want to project on other people. But some of my fear and anxieties surrounding it, I think, provides some good comedy for my act.
GROSS: Let's play an example of that in your TV show, "The Jim Gaffigan Show," on TV Land. Further into the episode that we heard an excerpt of earlier, after the article about you is written in The Huffington Post, after you're profiled as one of the entertainers of faith, you get a call to meet with a corporate executive who has an offer to make you. So here you are with the corporate executive.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW")
JON BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Mr. Gaffigan.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, hi.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Kevin Ferguson, I'm an executive at Cane Corp.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, great. Yeah.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Ever heard of it?
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, no.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) We operate a chain of restaurants called Pizza House.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Make your house a Pizza House.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) That's us. We're looking for a new spokesperson.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's very flattering, but I'm already doing this water campaign. So I don't want to do too many commercials.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Water campaign, that sounds fun.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Yeah.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Two days in Florida with us, seven figures.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) I could go to the airport right now if you want (laughter).
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Our CEO loves you.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) Oh, yeah? He likes my comedy?
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Well, he hasn't seen your comedy, but he likes that you work clean and that you have five kids. Jim, you'd be the perfect person to represent our company and reflect our American values, like pro-community.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's me.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) Pro-family.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's me.
BENJAMIN: (As Kevin Ferguson) The repudiation of homosexuality.
GAFFIGAN: (As Jim Gaffigan) That's - that's not me.
GROSS: (Laughter) So that's probably a pretty good example of what you're afraid of...
GROSS: That people will associate you with values that you don't share.
GAFFIGAN: Yeah. You know, I grew up in a Catholic family in the Midwest. And I knew people of different faiths and people that were atheists and people that were agnostic. And it really never came up, but I think that in present-day America, they're - you know, and I touched on it in the initial clip - is that we are in the middle of this culture war. And there's a quote in this episode where I say, I just want to talk about avocados. And some of it is - I do just want to do jokes. I don't want to be a divisive figure. I don't want to pick a team. I want to make people laugh and hopefully bring some - be humorous about the human experience, you know, whether they're people of any stripes of life.
GROSS: So, you know, in the TV show, like, your wife is especially religious, and you're, like, not much of a churchgoer. The first time you go, the priest is surprised because he didn't even realize your wife still had a husband (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Because he hadn't seen you before. Are you a churchgoer?
GAFFIGAN: I am. I would say I'm - in the show, I'm a cultural Catholic, which is what I was. And I would say that now I'm somebody who goes to church. I mean, I should clarify, I - you know, some of my anxiety is, like - I am a horrible person. I need...
GROSS: (Laughter) What does that mean?
GAFFIGAN: You know, I need the concept of mercy for me to have some semblance of self-admiration. So in real life, I'm probably somebody who is more devout. That's not to say that I'm a well-informed Catholic. You know, I'm still in idiot, you know? Like, I know that Colbert could quote Thomas Aquinas and all this, but I'm somebody who - you know, because it's a necessity for me on a personal basis. I need it because I'm a lunatic.
GROSS: When you say you're a horrible person and a lunatic, what do you mean?
GAFFIGAN: I mean that I'm somebody that - you know, I think stand-up comedy is this - it's this kind of indulgence and narcissism. And you're on stage and because stand-up comedy is one of the few meritocracies in the entertainment industry, there's some kind of - at least for me, there's some kind of idea of control. And my faith kind of keeps me in touch with the idea that I'm not in control of things. And when I'm in touch with the idea that there is a higher power and that there is, you know, other factors at work, it - it kind of quells my narcissism. And a lot of the teachings really kind of keep me grounded. But, you know, the reason I say I'm a horrible person is I don't want myself to be presented as somebody who's a great Catholic. You know, it's, you know - the idea of being a practicing Catholic, it's - for me, it's like - I need a lot of practice, you know what I mean? So...
GAFFIGAN: ...I don't - so I do get nervous. So even being presented as, you know, somebody who will be performing at this event, there's a little bit of concern or an expectation that I'm going to get a call and they're going to say look, we did some research. You know, you really shouldn't be performing. But, you know, if you want to pick up garbage after the show, maybe we could have you do that, so...
GROSS: When you were growing up, did you grow up with the concept of mercy?
GAFFIGAN: I don't think so. I think I grew up with the idea that God was a punishing being, constructed around rules. And so he was, you know, this father figure that, you know, I was in trouble with, you know, constantly. And so it was not something that - you know, I lived across from a Catholic church for 15 years that I never went into. And then I got married to my wife and - you know, and now we're going in there every other day baptizing a kid. So it's...
GAFFIGAN: It's - you know, it's an amazing journey, you know? You know, it's interesting because I was watching this thing last night. I think CNN had a thing on it, and it may me realize that, you know, for, like, the past 20 years, there has been this belief among the Catholic community - and this - I'm no expert, this is my opinion - that cafeteria Catholics are wrong. It's - you either - you know, follow all the rules or you're not really Catholic. And I think what Pope Francis is saying is that nobody's perfect, you know? And so someone like Joe Biden, you know, where - you know, when he was running for president, people were - there were some bishops that were like don't let him have the Eucharist. And Pope Francis is saying that's not the point of this, you know? So...
GROSS: So you grew up in a Catholic family. You became an agnostic at about what age?
GAFFIGAN: I would say in my mid-20s...
GROSS: So it...
GROSS: You stayed with the church pretty long by agnostic standards.
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I mean - well, you know - I mean, that's - you know, the - you know, there's - that's why I think they're called cultural Catholics. It's - you know, I mean, I - you know, I was still rooting for Notre Dame, you know? It's like there's the cultural Catholic experience. I mean, I went to a Catholic University and, you know, there's something about being a Catholic-American. You know, St. Patrick's Day is - you know, I'm Irish-Catholic. You know, there's alcoholism in my family. It's like I've got to be Catholic, right? And so I think when I started doing stand-up, that's when I really tried to question everything in my belief system, you know, which is - I think a pretty important part of being a comedian is really questioning things. And so that's when I really kind of steered away from it, but, you know, came back and, you know, still as uninformed as I was in high school. But I think, you know, faith is something that's - it's hard to articulate. It's - there's - it's not based on logic. It's a leap, so that's where I am.
GROSS: So comedy took you away from faith. What brought you back to it?
GAFFIGAN: I wouldn't say that comedy brought me away from it. I think that my idea of faith was another obligation in my life. You know, I was raised in a family where my father was the first one to go to college. You sought security. You didn't question - kind of like, you would go to college. You would wear a tie to work. You would, you know, you would work for 40 years. And then you would play golf for three years, and then you would die. That was how I was raised. And so I think when my mother died, it was such a - you know, a shock to the logic that I had been raised with. You know, I wasn't going to church. I never went to church when I was in college, either.
But I would say my return to my faith is - you know, it's a very personal thing. But I think it was - you know, I reached a point in my life where I didn't really like who I was. And, you know, I had the all these things that I wanted. I was married to an amazing woman. I had children, and yet there was frustration. You know, it's kind of hard to articulate, but, like, this notion of mercy, forgiveness, was very appealing for me. It was very profound. And it had a deep impact, and I think it still does.
BIANCULLI: Jim Gaffigan speaking to Terry Gross last September. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with comedian Jim Gaffigan, whose sitcom on TV Land is now in its second season. When Terry spoke with him last September, he was about to be one of the performers opening for the pope during the pope's visit to Philadelphia.
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GROSS: Lots of your comedy is about being a father with now five kids. Did you ever think you'd have as many kids? I know you lived alone for, like, 13 years, didn't you?
GAFFIGAN: Yeah. I mean, it's - you know, I love stand-up comedians. I really do. And, you know, we're - even when you hear about a comedian getting married, among comedians, we're always kind of like, what are they doing? (Laughter) And so the idea of having a large family, you know, I definitely had a romantic notion of it. But I didn't think that it's something that would happen. I didn't think I would be in the position, emotionally or financially, to be able to do that. But, you know, I've been lucky. But, you know, there's also - you know, I do get a lot - you know, my children have made me a better man, which is - in the end, that's probably more important than, you know, two more comedy specials or being in better shape. So I don't know. I mean, I know it sounds like I'm saying what I'm supposed to say. But I - you know, it's really kind of my experience.
GROSS: So what was it like for you when you got to New York and had to establish a comic identity? I don't know if being a Catholic was an issue for you then, that you felt like you needed to - I'm not sure whether you were in your, you know, agnostic phase or like...
GAFFIGAN: Yeah, I was...
GROSS: ...I'm-not-going-to-really-let-them-know-I'm-Catholic phase. So how did you find who you were on stage in New York?
GAFFIGAN: Well, you know, it's - you know, I always had this romantic notion of living in New York. I didn't know - I just felt like, you know, everyone could be different and weird and whatever they are in New York, where I felt like in the Midwest, as much as I love the Midwest, I felt that I was, you know, I was a little bit different. And so when I started stand-up - and this is in the '90s - there was definitely - you know, people hadn't watched decades of Comedy Central, where, you know, people are really much more educated on stand-up comedy. It used to be much more of a form combat. You know, heckling was much more common. And I - you know, I couldn't get stage time, and so I would go out to Pip's in Sheepshead Bay.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, I grew up in Sheepshead Bay.
GAFFIGAN: Right. And so...
GROSS: My parents used to go to Pip's. I never went there.
GAFFIGAN: Right, and so, you know, and that's where Andrew Dice Clay kind of - you know, obviously...
GROSS: Woody Allen, I think, started there.
GAFFIGAN: Oh, yeah, and so - Richard Lewis - you know, so many greats. And - but, like, at that time, Pip's was very much this rough-and-tumble kind of, you know, Brooklyn Italian kind of - or Andrew Dice Clay kind of working-class thing. And so I came across - I remember that's where I had this realization. To these people, I just looked like John Tesh.
GAFFIGAN: You know, to this audience. And so, you know, look, I always - I left the Midwest thinking I didn't fit in. But when I got to New York, I realized how truly Midwestern I was. And so, you know, I grew up 45 minutes outside of Chicago. But there was - some of it was this perception of the Midwest that I realized in this multicultural city that - and I don't think it's as true as it was - but everyone was kind of like, what, are you Jewish? Are you Italian? What are you? You know, are you black? Are you da-da-da? Are you Puerto Rican? And so I ended up - my ethnic identity was Midwestern, was white bread. And so it informed a lot of my stand-up.
GROSS: Part of your thing is that you work clean. You're a clean comic. You don't use four-letter words and stuff. I guess you don't talk about sex explicitly in your performances.
GROSS: That probably has something to do with being invited for pope weekend in Philadelphia to perform for the World Meeting of Families, with possibly the pope in the audience. But did you always work that way or was that a conscious decision after not working that way?
GAFFIGAN: Well, I was - you know, I was never really that dirty. I definitely had some curse words here and there. And as I mention, you know, I curse in everyday life, as my kids will repeatedly tell me. But, you know, I had some jokes that were dirty. And some of it is when I started making appearances on Conan and Letterman back in the late '90s, I think. You had to remove the curse words, or you couldn't do some of the more explicit jokes. And I realized, in removing or rewriting these jokes, that often the jokes weren't done or that I was using, for me, the curse words as kind of a crutch. So then I just started writing - if I knew - you know, every other month, I wasn't going to write a joke that I wouldn't be able to do on Conan. But again, most of my material is - you know, it doesn't necessarily involve a lot of editing. So even the show with - you know, for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, I don't have to worry about some of the material being inappropriate. I mean, I do have some Catholic stuff that is done from the perspective of an ignorant Catholic. But other than that, topic-wise, there's nothing really filthy.
GROSS: Well, listen, I wish you really good luck this weekend.
GAFFIGAN: Thanks so much.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
GAFFIGAN: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Jim Gaffigan speaking to Terry Gross last September. Days before he opened for the pope during the pontiff's visit to Philadelphia last fall. "The Jim Gaffigan Show" is now in its second season on TV Land.
After a short break, we'll have an appreciation of Elie Wiesel who died last weekend at age 87. Film critic David Edelstein will review the new movie "Life Animated," and I'll review the upcoming HBO Series "The Night Of." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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